Precision Agriculture and Biotechnology


Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer



         “How can precision agriculture help me manage Ggenetically Mmodified (GM) crops?” This is a question that I frequently hear from growers. The general answer is that precision agriculture is information technology applied to production of crops and livestock. Precision agriculture can help growers document what they grow and where, including GM crops.

         The problem with that general answer is that it does not tell the grower how to cost effectively put that information into a geographic information systems (GIS), nor does it answer how precision agriculture will help deal with crop damagecontamination due to pollen drift. The goal of this article is to share some ideas how this might be done.


Manual or Scan Input

         Most currently available field documentation systems (e.g. John Deere Field Doc) require manual input for seed type. Such systems can automatically monitor controller operatedcontroller-operated functions such as fertilizer, seed rate and pesticide application, but genetic information requires individual attention.

         Instead of manual input, it would be possible to scan genetic information from seed bag labels. This would require cooperation from the seed companies. Currently, most seed companies do not put scanable genetic information on the labels. It also raises questions with bulk seed which may not have a bag to label. In any case, even scanning requires time and at planting that is at a premium.

         To deal with pollen drift, coordination between neighboring growers is required. A farmer needs to know what the neighbor is planting as well as the genetics on his or her own farm. This could be accomplished with a community GIS with crops genetics posted for all to see on a website. This would be similar to the reporting of pesticide application now required in some states. Such a crop genetics GIS would require regular reporting, which is another time consuming activity.

         As Katherine Smith has pointed out in her article in the Sept,ember 2002, USDA Outlook, management time is a scarce resource and widespread use of precision agriculture will require methods that reduce the skill and attention needed. Ideally, there should be a way that seed genetics could be automatically recorded.


Some Alternatives

         There are several ideas for better identifying GM crops using electronic technology. One possibility is to identify a specific spectral signature for each hybrid or variety, so that the genetics can be picked up via satellite or aerial remote sensing. Questions include the effect of growing conditions on spectral signature response and the ability to create a distinguishable signature difference between for each of the thousands of GM varieties and hybrids.

         A more science fiction approach would be development of sensors which can rapidly read the DNA of seed (like the “Tricorders” in Star Trek). This will probably happen eventually, but it may be a while.

         An idea using current technology is the use of grain shaped transponders mixed in with the seed. These might be radio transmitters or something as simple as a magnetically readable tag. The transponders could transmit some minimum genetic information. For instance, it might transmit the hybrid or variety name, plus the lot number. A sensor on the planter could then automatically pick up the signal and look up the hybrid or variety characteristics from a listing downloaded from the INTERNET. The required information could be loaded into the grower’s field documentation GIS.

         To the best of my knowledge transponders are not being used to track crop genetics, but they are being put to use in a variety of other ways. They are used for toll road and ski lift passes. Transponders are used to track animals, both slaughter livestock and pets. A Canadian company has developed transponders which are mixed into concrete to monitor temperature and curing. A website with information on the wide range of transponder uses can be found at:


Grain Shaped Transponders

         The number of chips per unit of seed would depend on the planting rate and the desired accuracy of the information. For example in corn, three chips per 80,000 kernel unit would provide about one chip per acre at the most common planting rates.

         The transponders should be programmed to stop transmitting after the normal crop season. Because computer chips are mostly silicon, they should pose little long termlong-term harm to the soil or the environment. Last year’s chips would become another pebble in the soil structure.

         The grain shaped transponders would be planted with the other seed and could continue to transmit for the rest of the season. This might come in handy during spraying season. You can imagine a sprayer ready to apply Roundup. Before it enters the field, a sensor on the sprayer picks up the variety information and notes that it is not a Roundup Ready. An alarm sounds. The operator contacts the grower to check if it is the right field.

         The planted transponders could also help provide information to neighboring growers. If the transponder’s signal were strong enough, a neighbor driving by might be able to read the genetics on a sensor in the pickup or tractor cab. If for technical reasons the signals were relatively weak or if magnetic labels were used, growers could still share genetics maps based on planter information with their neighbors, either informally or through some kind of community website.




          Currently technology allows growers to use crop GIS software to track the genetics that they plant, but it usually requires manual entry of genetic information. Even scanning bar code information from seed bags would require extra time. Alternatives to manual entry or scanning include: satellite or aerial remote sensing of spectral signaturesresponse, sensors that rapidly read DNA and transponders mixed with seed. For the intermediate future the transponders appear to hold some advantages. Transponders technologies are currently available technology that could deal with the vast number of new hybrids and varieties that are developed each year. The challenges, however, areChallenges include keeping the cost down and developing transponders robust enough to pass through the usual planting process.